Why I’ll be watching tonight’s AFL Pride Game

I was an unlikely AFL fan – growing up on a cattle property in Central Queensland in the 1980s, following rugby league would have been the more logical choice. Despite this, during primary school I became increasingly interested in the ‘Southern’ football code and, when my (dearly-departed) Brisbane Bears entered the league in 1987, I was officially a fan.

 

That interest grew during the 90s, including playing a few games (very badly) while at uni. My fandom reached a peak during the glory days of the ‘merged’ Brisbane Lions (2001-2004) and the years I lived in Melbourne (2003-2008).

 

It is fair to say my active interest was waned a bit since then – probably the result of a combination of the abysmal performance of my team (only making one final series out of the past 12) and the fact I have moved back ‘North’ (first to Canberra, and then to Sydney).

 

Nevertheless, this Saturday night I will be sitting down to watch an AFL game between two teams that are not my own – the Sydney Swans and St Kilda Saints. The reason? Because tonight’s first ever AFL Pride Game is a historic occasion, and means a lot to me, not just as a footy fan, but also as a gay Australian.

 

The Pride Game demonstrates that the most-attended sporting code in the country understands (at least some of) the challenges that are presented by homophobia – both across society generally, but also the specific challenges facing Australian rules football.

 

The most obvious of these is the fact that, for a competition that started as the Victorian Football League way back in 1896 (before Australia even formally existed), there has still never been an out player at elite level[i].

 

As part of the build-up to the Pride Game, the League has publicly re-iterated its support for current players who may decide to come out, and its commitment – to build a supportive environment to allow them to do so – does seem sincere[ii].

 

Perhaps even more encouraging has been the fact that the AFL appears to understand that this is about more than simply accepting one or more gay players, it is actually about changing the culture of the sport, including the institutions that surround the game and the media that commentates on it.

 

In this respect, Australian rules does seem to have its fair share of, how should we put it, stupid people saying stupid things. From Jason Akermanis – who famously called for gay players to stay in the closet so that others could safely enjoy the ‘homoeroticism around football clubs’, including ‘slapping blokes on the bum and just having a bit of fun’[iii] – to commentator Brian Taylor – who described a player as a ‘poofter’ live on TV just two years ago[iv] – and controversy-generator Sam Newman – who, as well as describing Michael Sam kissing his partner as an “annoyingly gratuitous act”[v], has previously said that Melbourne did not need “mincing, lisping, parading people wandering all over the country” and warned of “having the whole state [of Victoria] infested with people we don’t actually want”[vi] – there are plenty of candidates for (re-)education about the real harms caused by homophobia.

 

The need to change the sport’s culture also includes ensuring that fans are not subjected to a homophobic environment. A widely-reported[vii] incident from earlier this year, where homophobic slurs at a North Melbourne-Fremantle fixture were apparently met with smiles from security guards, demonstrates that this is still a serious problem in 2016[viii].

 

On the positive side, however, the League responded relatively swiftly by updating its ticketing conditions to state that “no person… shall acts towards or speak to any other person in a manner, or engage in any other conduct which threatens, disparages, vilifies or insults another person (the person vilified) on any basis, including but not limited to a person’s race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin, special ability/disability or sexual orientation, preference or identity.”[ix]

 

The comments by St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis, in the lead-up to tonight’s game, demonstrates that (at least some) senior figures within the League genuinely understand the need for inclusivity:

 

“People shouldn’t feel ashamed to hold their partner’s hand at the footy. People shouldn’t feel uncomfortable because they might hear a homophobic slur… It’s really important to say everyone’s welcome at a Saints game… The footy hasn’t been the most welcoming place for everyone so we think we can do our bit.”[x]

 

Hopefully, both at tonight’s historic Pride Game and in all the games that follow, Australian rules football does become a genuinely more inclusive place, for players and fans.

 

Of course, the challenges faced by the AFL, and the steps that it is taking to address them, is not happening in isolation. In recent years, there has been growing focus on the issue of homophobia in sports more broadly.

 

This includes the ground-breaking Out on the Fields[xi] study, which found that:

 

  • 80% of participants have witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport
  • 75% believe an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event, and
  • 50% of gay men and 48% of lesbians have been personally targeted.

 

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that 70% of young respondents (under 22) still believe youth team sport is not safe for gay people. Full results here (source: Out on the Fields):

 

infographic-aus

 

A number of major Australian sporting codes (including the AFL, NRL, ARU, FFA, Cricket Australia, Swimming Australia, Waterpolo Australia, Basketball Australia and Golf Australia) have also taken steps to tackle homophobia through the Pride in Sports Index[xii] and related initiatives.

 

These are all important measures in changing sporting culture. But it is perhaps tonight’s AFL Pride Game that has most publicly caught the collective imagination. And that isn’t particularly surprising, given how closely ingrained ‘footy’ is in the fabric of Australian life (for many people anyway).

 

Which is also the opportunity of tonight’s game – to help overcome homophobia in all parts of society, not just in those traditionally considered to be more ‘gay-friendly’. The Pride Game will reach some people who would never even consider attending, or watching the highlights of, the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (which ends near the SCG, home of the Sydney Swans) or Melbourne’s Pride March (held in St Kilda). In addressing homophobia everywhere, we need more vehicles like this.

 

One of my favourite stories of the past week reveals just how much cultural influence Australian rules football can exert, and also how much potential for change the Pride Game has. It involved former player Nicky Winmar, who famously stood up against the racism he was experiencing from AFL fans by visibly showing he was a proud Indigenous man, now showing similar pride in his gay son Tynan:

 

“I’m proud I can do this for him, and his friends and others out there – if you’re gay, be proud of who you are,” [Nicky] Winmar said. “I was proud to stand up for indigenous people in sport and now it’s time to stand up for these guys. Life is too short.”[xiii]

 

Stories like this are what culture changes looks like.

 

And if we were in any doubt about that, the backlash from some has merely confirmed it. This has ranged from 3AW’s Tom Elliot’s ill-informed contribution in the media (“Not a single professional AFL footballer has come out and admitted he is gay, speaks volumes. Footy is simply that, footy, why make it bigger than what it is? I don’t want to be lectured, I don’t want a political message”[xiv]) to religious fundamentalists distributing homophobic flyers criticising the AFL’s decision to hold the game[xv]. Both responses indicate that this game matters, and that its message of inclusivity matters.

 

For all of these reasons, and despite the fact my beloved Brisbane Bears/Lions aren’t playing (which is possibly a small mercy, given the way they’re playing they’d likely lose badly against both), I will definitely be watching tonight’s first ever AFL Pride Game. The code, and the two teams involved, are showing leadership and that leadership should be rewarded.

 

Oh, and there is one final aspect of tonight’s game that I applaud – the inspired choice to hold it on the anniversary of Howard’s homophobic ban on marriage equality. It shows that even our largest sports reject the discrimination imposed through that abhorrent Act – and that they stand with the majority of the community in believing all Australians should have the same rights, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. It’s time for our politicians to catch up.

 

**********

 

[NB I acknowledge that this post primarily focuses on male team sports, rather than female team sports, which have a history of more out players, in Australia and globally, and is arguably more inclusive of differences in sexual orientation. I have done so because, at least for time being, the AFL is a male competition (although like many others I look forward to next year’s inaugural AFL national women’s league[xvi]) and also because, given the disproportionate media attention given to male team sports in Australia, they consequently have a disproportionate capacity to affect cultural change.

I also note that this post largely addresses issues of sexual orientation, rather than those of gender identity or intersex status (which share some elements – in terms of abusive comments and behaviour – but which have additional challenges, such as being excluded from participation on the basis of that identity/status). Both the Out on the Fields study, and to a lesser extent the Pride in Sports Index, provide greater emphasis on the inclusion of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes than transgender or intersex participants. This has also been reflected in the build up to and media coverage of the Pride Game itself, which has focused almost exclusively on gay men. Obviously, as on many subjects concerning LGBTI rights, there is a long distance yet to go in terms of addressing trans and intersex inclusion in sports.]

 

Endnotes:

[i] Of course, the AFL is not alone in this absence – of the four major men’s football codes in Australia (Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union and soccer/football), there has only ever been one openly gay elite player, rugby league star Ian Roberts, who came out more than 20 years ago. The fact nobody has joined him since both underscores the barriers that continue to confront gay and bisexual players today, and highlights how courageous he truly was.

[ii] There is some debate about whether the amount of discussion of this issue, including multiple public comments by League officials that gay players would be welcomed, has in fact increased the pressure on players considering ‘coming out’. Possibly – but this is still a preferable approach to the alternative, which would be for the AFL to remain silent on the topic, leaving players in greater doubt about whether they would be accepted or not.

[iii] Full quote: “But some or my, the homoeroticism around football clubs… what workplace would you be able to see 20 men nude all the time if you wanted to? When you’re slapping blokes on the bum and just having a bit of fun, what would that [having an out player there] do to a man in there when you actually work out, “Oh wait a second, wait a second. I don’t know if I can handle that guy.” Aker defends call for players to stay in the closet, May 20, 2010, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/aker-defends-call-for-gay-players-to-stay-in-closet-20100519-vg2j.html

[iv] AFL commentator Brian Taylor slammed for homophobic slur on Geelong’s Harry Taylor, July 14, 2014, ABC Online. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-13/afl-commentator-slammed-for-homophobic-slur/5592660

[v] NFL Draftee Michael Sam’s kiss ‘annoyingly gratuitous’: Sam Newman, May 15, 2014, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/nfl-draftee-michael-sams-kiss-annoyingly-gratuitous-sam-newman-20140514-zrd41.html

[vi] Newman anti-gay comments slammed, December 8, 2004, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Newman-antigay-comments-slammed/2004/12/08/1102182357178.html

[vii] AFL to change ticket policy after homophobic slurs, April 19, 2016, Star Observer. http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/afl-to-change-ticket-policy-after-homophobic-slurs/148600

[viii] On a personal level, while I witnessed a significant number of homophobic incidents at games in Melbourne, I haven’t observed the same behavior at the few games I have attended in Canberra and Sydney, and have comfortably held my partner’s hand and kissed him too, without incident.

[ix] Despite this positive step, the terminology used (preference) and the terms that have been excluded (gender identity and intersex status) show there is still some way to go.

[x] St Kilda CEO Matt Finnis thrilled about St Kilda and Sydney Pride Game, August 11, 2016, Brisbane Times. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/st-kilda-ceo-matt-finnis-thrilled-about-st-kilda-and-sydney-pride-game-20160811-gqq783.html

[xi] Website: http://www.outonthefields.com/media/#Australia

[xii] Website: http://www.prideindiversity.com.au/prideinsport/

[xiii] Nicky Winmar making a proud stand for his gay son Tynan, August 10, 2016, Herald Sun. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/afl/nicky-winmar-making-a-proud-stand-for-his-gay-son-tynan/news-story/0a82b9ecd5ae1c6056682b5652a4b154

[xiv] Despite criticism, AFL Pride Game set to be life-changing, August 11, 2016, samesame.com.au http://www.samesame.com.au/news/14080/Despite-criticism-AFL-Pride-Game-set-to-be-life-changing

[xv] St Kilda, Sydney targeted in protest against AFL’s first gay pride game, April 30, 2016, The Age. http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-season-2016-st-kilda-sydney-targeted-in-protest-against-afls-first-gay-pride-game-20160429-goi52g.html

[xvi] Eight teams named for inaugural women’s league, June 15, 2016, AFL website. http://www.afl.com.au/news/2016-06-15/eight-teams-named-for-inaugural-womens-league

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12 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Athletes I Admire Most

Tonight, from my perspective, is ‘peak sport’ for 2014: the start of play at Wimbledon (when we can at least still dream of an Australian winner), and the first of the final group games at the men’s football World Cup (with Australia bowing out, hopefully with another solid performance, against Spain in the early hours of tomorrow morning). As a long-term tennis fan – and football fan once exactly every four years – it doesn’t get much better than that.

To celebrate this, but more importantly to acknowledge the fact that the past 12-18 months has been a ‘breakout’ period for LGBT people in sports worldwide, I thought I would write about some of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes who I admire most, some for their outstanding play on the field, some for the paths they have forged for others to follow, and some for what they have accomplished off the field as well.

Of course, in limiting this list to just a dozen names, there are many, many worthy people who I have left out (and to whom I apologise) – but here are some of the LGBT athletes that this particular sports fan looks up to:

12: Abby Wambach

Given the current World Cup in Brazil, I thought I would start with a football player who has competed at three World Cups, as well as at two Olympic Games (winning Gold Medals at both). Abby Wambach is also the highest goal scorer in international football – male or female – with 167 goals, and was FIFA World Player of the Year (2012).

Abby’s sexual orientation became more widely known last October, when she married fellow football player Sarah Huffman – although she rejected descriptions that this was her ‘coming out’: “I can’t speak for other people, but for me, I feel like gone are the days when you need to come out of a closet. I never felt like I was in a closet. I never did. I always felt comfortable with who I am and the decisions I made.”

See also: Casey Stoney, who has herself played at two World Cups, more than 100 internationals, captained both England, and Great Britain at the London Olympics, and who officially came out in February this year.

On the men’s side, few players have come out while still active, with the most recent being Robbie Rogers (who has played 18 times for the US, although none at World Cup level), and of course Justin Fashanu, an English player who came out way back in 1990, but whose life ended tragically eight years later.

11: Nicola Adams

Bisexual British boxer Nicola Adams did one of the most difficult things in sport: to win a Gold Medal, as a favourite, at a home Olympics (London 2012). In doing so, she became the first openly LGBT boxer to win a medal at that level.

See also: Puerto Rican former world IBA Featherweight champion Orlando Cruz became the first male professional boxer to come out as gay while still active in October 2012.

10: Michael Sam

So much has been written about Michael Sam already this year that adding much here is almost redundant. He makes this list alone for the courage of coming out publicly prior to NFL draft camp (although his teammates knew during his final season of College football) – and accepting the risk that he would be drafted lower, or even not at all, because of this declaration. To risk killing off your career, by being honest about who you are from the outset, in a sport where no active player has ever come out, is the definition of brave.

The moment where he emotionally celebrated being drafted by the St Louis Rams by kissing his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, broadcast live on ESPN to millions of Americans, was also one of the most beautiful things we will see on TV this year (sports or non-sports related). I’m sure I’m not the only person around the world who knows very little about ‘grid iron’ but who cares passionately about whether Michael Sam makes his on-field debut in the next few seasons.

See also: US basketball player Jason Collins came out via Sports Illustrated in April 2013 and, in March 2014, played for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly-gay active player in any of the ‘big four’ North American men’s sports competitions (baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey), although baseball player Glenn Burke was apparently open about being gay to his teammates and club owners in the late 1970s, but not to the public at large.

Michael Sam embraces boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN after being drafted.

Michael Sam embraces boyfriend Vito Cammisano live on ESPN after being drafted

9: Brittney Griner

While there might be more accomplished openly lesbian or bisexual women’s basketball players (so far, anyway) than the 23 year old Griner, it is hard to look past someone who, in the same week in April 2013, was both picked first overall in the WNBA draft and came out publicly as a lesbian to Sports Illustrated (a couple of weeks before Jason Collins). The fact that she has used her new-found fame to stand up against bullying, and bullying of young LGBT people in particular, makes me respect her even more.

See also: There have been several other notable lesbian or bisexual female basketball players, although one of the more famous was three-time Olympic Gold Medallist Sheryl Swoopes, who announced she was gay in 2005 and had a long-term female partner, although has since become engaged to a man (NB I have not used the word bisexual here because I do not believe Swoopes uses that term to identify herself).

8: Belle Brockhoff

As with Griner, there have no doubt been more accomplished openly-LGBT athletes at the Winter Olympics. But, to me, coming out to the world at age 20, before your first ever Games, and then being an active part of the Athlete Ally/AllOut ‘Principle 6’ campaign against homophobia in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in Putin’s Russia is seriously impressive. Oh, and did I mention that just this week she became a beyondblue Ambassador for mental health, including LGBTI mental health?

See also: Dutch speed-skater Ireen Wust, who came out as bisexual in October 2009, has been to three Winter Olympics, winning 4 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals, becoming the most successful athlete for the Netherlands at the Olympics. And, while he just missed out on qualifying for the Sochi Games, I couldn’t leave out the Vancouver Olympian from New Zealand, Blake Skjellerup, who came out in May 2010 and is, like Griner, an advocate against bullying.

7: Matthew Mitcham

Another athlete to come out before their first Olympic Games – also aged just 20, in the lead-up to Beijing in 2008 – Mitcham went on to claim the Gold Medal in the men’s 10 metre platform, with the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. The fact that he had been so public about his sexual orientation also meant that the world got to see him celebrating his victory by embracing his boyfriend, Lachlan Fletcher, in the stands – a forerunner of, and rival to, the Sam-Cammisano moment.

See also: It would be remiss not to mention British Olympic bronze medallist diver Tom Daley, especially given his December 2013 coming out video on YouTube has been watched more than 11 million times around the world.

Matthew Mitcham celebrates his Gold Medal victory in Beijing with partner Lachlan Fletcher

Matthew Mitcham celebrates his Gold Medal victory in Beijing with partner Lachlan Fletcher

6: Amelie Mauresmo

I have chosen the previous four athletes at least in part because they have all been ‘out’ from the early days of their sporting careers. One of the most famous athletes to set that precedent was French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo, who not only came out publicly at the age of 19 during the 1999 Australian Open (where she went on to make the final), but who also endured negative comments from other players in response.

The fact that she persevered against her (on-court) psychological struggles, to become world number 1 and then both Australian Open and Wimbledon Champion in 2006 is truly admirable.

See also: I have written previously about the large number of out female tennis players (link here) compared to the complete absence of any out male players. Of those women, one of my favourites is Casey Dellacqua, who came out in August last year, with the simple announcement that she and her partner Amanda had become parents.

5: Greg Louganis

Greg Louganis is the only person to feature on this list who was not openly LGBT during their sports career. And, while he may go down in history as one of the greatest divers of all time (winning two gold medals at both the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics), that is not the reason I have included him here either.

He features because of his disclosure in 1995 that he was both gay and HIV-positive, having tested positive at the start of 1988. In doing so, he was confronted by, and helped to confront, the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV, at a time when large numbers of people in the US, Australia and other Western countries were still dying from AIDS-related illness (noting of course that this continues to be true for much of the world today).

Louganis has since worked as an advocate for people living with HIV, as well as for the human rights of the LGBT community, thus demonstrating his champion abilities extended from the diving board to the real world.

See also: Australian Sydney Olympic silver medallist, trampolinist Ji Wallace, who announced he was gay in 2005, and HIV-positive in August 2012, and who has since become another advocate for people living with HIV.

4: Renee Richards

One of the true pioneers of LGBT sports, Renee Richards transitioned in 1975. She was subsequently denied entry to compete at the 1976 US Open Tennis championships. Richards contested this ban in the New York Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour, allowing her to compete at the 1977 US Open where, despite losing in first round singles, she made the women’s doubles final.

Richards continued to compete until 1981, rising as high as number 20 in the rakings (in February 1979). She may not have won a title, but in the period since she has won an enormous amount of respect for being a trailblazer for trans* participation in sports.

See also: Mianne Bagger, Danish born Australian resident, was the first trans* woman to play in a professional golf tournament at the Women’s Australian Open in 2004. She went on to qualify for and play on the European Women’s Golf Tour. Trans* Canadian athlete Michelle Dumaresq is another pioneer in this field, competing in the 2002, 2003 and 2004 World Mountain Biking Championships.

3: Louisa Wall

Wall made her international debut for the Silver Ferns in netball in 1988 at the age of just 17. Later, she went on to compete in international rugby union, coming out publicly as a lesbian prior to playing for the New Zealand team that won the women’s World Cup in 1998.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Wall entered Parliament in 2008, and it was her Private Member’s Bill which was eventually passed on 17 April 2013, making New Zealand the 13th country in the world to achieve marriage equality. That list of achievements is enough to make most people (this author included) feel pretty inadequate by comparison.

See also: While he never played internationally, another LGBT athlete to make the transition to politics is Brian Sims, who in 2001 became the only openly gay college football captain in NCAA history, and is now a Democratic member in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives.

Louisa Wall with partner Prue Katea celebrating passage of the NZ Marriage Amendment Bill

Louisa Wall with partner Prue Katea celebrating passage of the NZ Marriage Amendment Bill

2: Ian Roberts

Looking back on it now, almost 20 years later, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Ian Roberts’ coming out – for so many people around the world (including for the author, who was 17, deeply in the closet and at a religious boarding school in Brisbane at the time).

The fact that someone who was one of the ‘hard men’ of rugby league, having played 9 State of Origin matches and 13 Tests for Australia, talked openly about being gay – and, importantly, who continued to play the game for another three years – was simply amazing.

At the time, it was also supposed to be a ‘game changer’, with Roberts opening the door for other gay or bisexual rugby league (and Australian rules) players to come out, too. In 2014, in Australia at least, none have followed in his footsteps, thus underscoring just how significant his original declaration was.

See also: While no other Australian top flight rugby league or Australian rules players have come out since Roberts retired, Welsh rugby union and rugby league dual captain (and British Lions captain to boot), Gareth Thomas came out as gay in 2009, prior to his rugby league international appearances.

1: Martina Navratilova

It is almost inevitable that the number one person on any list of LGBT athletes to admire will end up being Martina Navratilova. Yet, despite her ‘top ranking’ becoming almost a cliché, there is a reason why it is impossible to ignore the achievements of a tennis player who came out as a lesbian, aged 24, way back in 1981.

At the time, Navratilova had already won two Grand Slam singles titles and previously reached the top ranking. She would go on to win a further 16 Grand Slam singles titles (including every major at least twice, and Wimbledon nine times), 41 Grand Slam doubles titles (31 women’s, ten mixed), among 167 singles titles overall, and 177 doubles titles overall. Martina (her fame was such that many felt they were on first name basis) was also world number one for 332 weeks, second only in history to Steffi Graf.

The fact that she did so as an out and proud lesbian meant that Navratilova served as a powerful role model for countless young lesbians and gay men in the 1980s, especially when such role models were somewhat thin on the ground. And it should be remembered that she did so at great personal cost – at a time when tennis was moving from the early days of professionalism on its way to becoming a global money-making machine (for the top players at least), Navratilova’s declaration no doubt contributed to a massive loss of potential sponsorship income.

For all of these reasons, her on-court accomplishments, the fact that she was a powerful role model, and that, in coming out at 24 she knowingly sacrificed financial rewards to be true to herself, Martina Navratilova is the LGBT athlete I admire most.

See also: There is no ‘see also’, it’s just Martina.

Martina Navratilova, demonstrating the determination that made her one of the greatest players of all time

Martina Navratilova, demonstrating the determination that made her one of the greatest players of all time

Notes:

Obviously, putting together any list like this is going to be somewhat subjective, and the athletes included above certainly reflect the fact that I am a tennis fan (with three of the 12 positions) and Australian (it’s highly likely that if I wasn’t, Belle Brockhoff and Ireen Wust would be swapped). There are also plenty of other athletes who would have made worthy entries – Alyson Annan, Natalie Cook and Rennae Stubbs among them.

I also make no apology for the fact that women make up two thirds of the list – it is undeniable that men have been lagging behind in terms of LGBT sports for some time (although there are hopeful signs, with people like Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and Michael Sam, that they might finally be starting to catch up).

Finally, I acknowledge that I have not included any intersex athletes in this article. I have done so deliberately because, for the most part, the fact that these athletes have been intersex has been publicly revealed not because of the athlete’s own actions, but as a result of the compulsory ‘sex testing’ of those athletes (in many cases leading to disqualification and bans from their chosen sports). In such a situation, I do not believe it is my place to talk about their intersex status – that is up to them.

Postscript 24 March 2017:

I have now had the good fortune to meet one-third of the ‘top 12’ listed above:

-Martina Navratilova at the Montreal OutGames in 2006

-Ian Roberts at a number of events in Sydney in recent years, and

-Matthew Mitcham and Greg Louganis at Mardi Gras panels on sport and homophobia.

All have been lovely (thankfully – there is little worse than meeting an idol only to find them to be unpleasant individuals). Hopefully I have the opportunity to meet more athletes from the list in coming years.

Is there a moral obligation on athletes to come out?

Following my post in January (“In search of the elusive gay or bisexual male tennis player”) I was asked by the Star Observer to write about lesbian, gay and bisexual sportspeople and whether they should be out or not. I took that to mean whether there is a moral obligation on LGB athletes to come out – and my piece discussing that topic can be found at the following link: <http://www.starobserver.com.au/opinion/soapbox-opinion/to-be-out-or-not-out-in-sport/118055

Coincidentally, it was written on the weekend before Mike Sam came out, making the topic of lesbian, gay and bisexual involvement in sport quite topical.

Of course, I really wish I could have written that yes, they do have a moral obligation, in particular to other members of the LGB community – but that would ignore both the individual behind the ‘athlete’, including their personal story (and struggles that we may not be aware of), and the many reasons why they may choose not to be out in their chosen sport, including homophobia and biphobia. In any event, I hope that I have done the topic justice, and would love to know your thoughts about what I wrote.

Two final notes: firstly, I deliberately chose not to cover the issues of trans* and intersex involvement in sports, because I didn’t feel that I had the necessary expertise to write about those subjects. Besides, I am confident there are many people better placed to write about trans* and sport, and intersex and sport, respectively.

Second, I was a little surprised that my references to ‘outing’, specifically that I believe there might be some circumstances in which outing a virulently or malevolently homophobic politician might be acceptable, didn’t attract any critical responses. Perhaps that position is a little less controversial than I thought? In any event, I might write more on the topic of outing at a later date.

In search of the elusive gay or bisexual male tennis player

As we enter the second week of the Australian Open, it is time, for yet another year, to call off the search party for that rare beast, the Australian singles quarter-finalist. Not seen since 2009, this critically-endangered animal is quickly going the way of its relative, the Australian winner, not seen since 1976 (male) and 1978 (female) respectively, and now presumed extinct.

But, believe it or not, there is at least one creature in tennis which is even rarer, indeed almost mythical – the openly gay or bisexual male tennis player.

In the long history of this genteel sport, there have been only two male tennis players of note who have been linked to homo- or bi-sexuality, and both had tragic personal stories. The first, 1930s German world number 1 and dual French Open winner, Gottfried Von Cramm, was jailed for 6 months by the Nazi regime for ‘morals charges’, as the result of an affair with another man.

The second, the great Bill Tilden of the US, the best player in the world in the 1920s and winner of 3 Wimbledons and 7 US Opens, was twice jailed after his career had finished for male same-sex encounters (one with a 14 year old prostitute and a second with a 16 year old hitchhiker – the ages certainly making this a more complicated case to ‘categorise’).

Bill Tilden. Source: Sports Illustrated.

Bill Tilden. Source: Sports Illustrated.

There have been no openly gay or bisexual male players in the post-Second World War period, and certainly none of any note in the Open era.

Contrast this with the cavalcade of greats from the women’s game known to have been lesbian, bisexual or, at the very least, to have been in same-sex relationships. This includes greats like Helen Jacobs (winner of 5 grand slams); Billie Jean King (12 grand slams), who was famously outed through a ‘palimony’ lawsuit from an ex-partner; Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 slams who voluntarily came out in 1981 early in her career; and Hana Mandlikova, winner of 4 slams (and who, towards the end of her career, became an Australian citizen).

They are joined by some of the best doubles players of the past 30 years as well, including Gigi Fernandez (winner of 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and 2 Olympic gold medals), Lisa Raymond (6 Grand Slam doubles titles) and our own Rennae Stubbs, winner of 4 Grand Slam doubles titles and a 4-time Olympian.

Perhaps the most famous lesbian player of the past 10-15 years was Amelie Mauresmo, the Frenchwoman who made the Final of the Australian Open in 1999, and ‘came out’ at the same time, acknowledging her girlfriend Sylvie. All that, at 19 years of age (as an aside, it is worth noting that one of the players who, at least early in her career, had a reputation for being mentally fragile on the court, was incredibly strong off it). Mauresmo went on to become world number 1, and won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships later in her career.

Amelie Mauresmo. Source: The Guardian.

Amelie Mauresmo. Source: The Guardian.

Just last year, in a sign of how far the women’s tour has come, Australia’s Casey Dellacqua came out via a short statement announcing the birth of her and her partner Amanda’s son, Blake. About the only consequence of that announcement so far has been an increase in questions from reporters about how she manages life on tour with a new-born.

It is fair to say that, when a male player does eventually come out, it will provoke a much larger response, from the tennis community, the media and of course the fans. Unlike other sports, this will not necessarily be because men’s tennis is, in an inherently sexist view, deemed more important than the women’s game (because of the wonderful work of people like Billie Jean King, gender inequality is far less in tennis than elsewhere), but simply because the novelty of a men’s tennis player coming out will make it big news.

But why is it novel? Why, when tennis as a sport has shown itself to be at ease with the concept of openly lesbian or bisexual female players, has no male player felt sufficiently at ease to come forward and identify himself? Is there such a fundamental difference between the men’s and women’s tours?

Now, I will preface the rest of this article by saying that I am not an ‘insider’ on the men’s tour, and don’t know of any gay or bisexual male players (nor am I going to play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game of speculation – sorry). But the following are some reasons which I believe might help explain why a tennis player would choose not to come out (and, where relevant, why that factor might be more relevant for a male player):

Tennis is a truly global sport. In an age of increasing world-wide sporting competition, there are still surprisingly few sports that could be considered truly global – meaning sports that compete on each continent, and draw elite players from each continent. Tennis is one, alongside athletics and soccer and, well, I’m struggling to think of too many others. Possibly not coincidentally, soccer and athletics have also been sports where, male players in particular, have not come out until relatively recently (Robbie Rogers and Thomas Hitzlsperger in the last 18 months finally joining their tragic earlier standard-bearer in football, Justin Fashanu).

With 77 countries around the world still criminalising homosexuality (and some of those only criminalising male, rather than female, same-sex sexual intercourse), the threat of having to play in a country where you are considered a criminal must be a relevant consideration. Of course, most players set their own schedules, and none of the Grand Slams or compulsory Masters tournaments are held in countries where homosexuality is criminalised. Even the End of Year Championships, which moves around, hasn’t been held in a city with operative ‘anti-sodomy’ laws since New York in the late 1970s.

However, the Davis Cup is held annually in countries all around the world, on a rotating home-and-away basis. This format meant that, in 2013, Australia played ties in Chinese Taipei, Uzbekistan and Poland. Of those, Uzbekistan has laws criminalising male, but not female, homosexuality (by up to 3 years imprisonment). With some countries, like Australia, placing a high emphasis on players representing their country in Davis Cup, this must make it a more difficult calculation to decide whether to come out in tennis, compared to an athlete in a domestic-only sport (for example, Australian rules football).

Elite tennis players earn more ‘off-court’ than on. While tennis prizemoney has increased exponentially since the beginning of the Open era (and probably makes Billie Jean King simultaneously wince, and feel satisfied), the bounty to be had off-court, at least by the very top players, is even greater. For example, Forbes magazine estimated in August 2013 that, over the previous 12 months, Roger Federer earned $71.5million, including ‘only’ $6.5million in prizemoney versus $65million in endorsements.

On the women’s side, the top earner (and incidentally the highest-paid female athlete in the world) Maria Sharapova earned an estimated $29million, with $6million from prizemoney and $23million in endorsements. For some players, this disparity is even greater – Kei Nishikori earned $10.5million, with ‘just’ $1.5million coming from on-court activities.

The reason is that tennis players are truly marketable commodities, both globally and within each country, or to put it bluntly, ‘market’, especially to consumers with higher average levels of disposable income. For a player to come out, in a world where more than one third of countries criminalise homosexuality, means potentially making themselves unsaleable in a large number of markets.

This consideration is even more acute when you consider that one way in which elite players line their pockets during the off-season is to play exhibition matches, increasingly staged in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries (often with their own laws against homosexuality). It is possible that an openly gay male player’s invitation could get ‘lost in the mail’ in such circumstances.

In short, elite tennis players – or those with an aspiration of being an elite player at some stage in their career (nearly all young players) – may still have a genuine financial incentive to stay in the closet. Again, this would be different from an athlete in a domestic-only sport, whose consideration about off-field sponsorship only depends on the reaction of sponsors within one country, and therefore may feel my able to come out when social attitudes within that country change.

The men’s tour may have a more homophobic culture than the women’s tour. As indicated earlier, I am not a tennis insider, so this is largely speculation. But, from an outsider’s perspective, it certainly seems like there is some evidence to support this assertion. For example, it is difficult to imagine a player on the women’s tour making the following comments, both before and after winning a major championship, and largely getting away with it:

Before the championship, at Queens: “Last year I played well here and played like a faggot at Wimbledon… Better to play like a faggot here and play well at Wimbledon.” And then, after winning: “Then I hit another serve, huge. And that ball was on the line, was not even close. And that guy, he looks like a faggot little bit, you know. This hair all over him. He call it. I couldn’t believe he did it.” Goran Ivanisevic, Wimbledon winner 2001 (and now back on tour as the coach of fellow Croatian Marin Cilic).

Australia’s own Lleyton Hewitt has similar form. In 2005, he finally experienced some reprobation for yelling out “Poof” on court. Years earlier – at the End of Year Championships in Shanghai, 2002 – I remember watching Hewitt shout, on multiple occasions, “Poofter”, when he lost points. The Australian television commentator remarked at the time “I think Hewitt thinks he will get away with this in China” and he pretty much did – despite much larger previous backlashes when he made remarks based on disability and race.

Contrast this with the reaction of one of the then youngest players on tour, the UK’s Laura Robson, who in a dignified yet steadfast manner supported the ‘rainbow’-coloured protests in 2012 following comments by notorious homophobe, and one-time tennis player, Margaret Court*. From memory, no male players joined that protest – and I doubt many would if similar circumstances arose today.

On the flipside, there are some reasons why, theoretically at least, it should be easier for a tennis player to come out than athletes in other sports.

First, competitive tennis is largely an individual sport. Yes, there is doubles, but finding an open-minded playing partner must surely be more likely than expecting every single member of a football team to be supportive. Indeed, the women’s doubles greats, listed above, and including Martina Navratilova, never seemed to encounter too much of a problem recruiting partners (although that might also be because they were so good that the promise of winning would overcome most obstacles). And, while there are some teams competitions throughout the year (most importantly Davis Cup for men and Federation Cup for women), these are only for short time periods, with some elite players even opting out of them from time to time.

In my opinion, tennis is such an individual sport that it is almost individualist – in that it encourages, and has a long history of, strong characters breaking out of any box that seeks to capture them, and doing things their own way, both on court and off (see: McEnroe, John; Connors, Jimmy). It doesn’t seem outrageous to think that a gay male player could similarly have struck out on their own, saying “That’s how I play, this is who I am, deal with it.”

A second factor making it potentially easier for a gay or bisexual male player to come out now is the rapidly ageing nature of the men’s tour. Contrary to earlier generations, the average age of the men’s top 10 is now more than 27 years old.  While we, quite accurately, consider Nick Kyrgios, 18, and Thanasi Kokkinakis, 17, as two of the most exciting prospects to emerge in recent years, even the younger of the pair is older than both Boris Becker when he won Wimbledon and Michael Chang when he won the French Open.

An ageing tour should help because it is probably not reasonable to expect everyone to ‘do a Mauresmo’ and come out at age 19 (heck, I was nervous enough telling my family at that age, let alone the whole world). But it is reasonable to think that, as players mature during their 20s, and even play on until their early to mid 30s, at least one, and possibly more, might eventually feel comfortable enough to disclose their sexual orientation while still playing.

A third reason why a gay or bisexual male player should find it somewhat easier to come out today is that so many women have already done so. Players like Mauresmo, and Navratilova, and Raymond and now Dellacqua, have all shown that it is possible to disclose one’s sexuality and remain active through the week-in, week-out grind of the tennis tour.

Of course, in doing so, they have had to overcome the very same barriers I outlined earlier. They have all had to negotiate the vagaries of the global tour, and decide whether to play in countries with higher levels of homophobia, including places where female same-sex sexual activity is banned.

And they have had to confront a very real, and demonstrated, loss of sponsorship. Billie Jean King’s endorsements basically dried up the day after she was so publicly outed. Martina Navratilova probably earned an order of magnitude less off-court than she would have had she not revealed who she was. Even Amelie Mauresmo likely lost out financially, potentially millions of Euros, because of her courage at age 19.

Martina Navratilova. Winner on-court, missed out on endorsements off-court. Source: The Guardian.

Martina Navratilova. Winner on-court, missed out on endorsements off-court. Source: The Guardian.

Bisexual female and lesbian tennis players have also had to overcome homophobia on the tour. Mauresmo had to withstand not-very-subtle ‘plays like a man’ critiques in 1999 from other players like Martina Hingis and, in a lapse of judgment, Lindsay Davenport. But, and this is the important part, both were forced to apologise. In that same year, US player Alexandra Stevenson’s mother commented during Wimbledon that her daughter needed to be protected from “lesbians in the locker-room”. This time around, Davenport was on the right side of the debate, and called the comments out as bizarre and ignorant.

In short, the very existence of openly lesbian players has brought forward the arguments around homosexuality, on court and in the stands, and those arguments have been won – at least on the women’s tour. King, and Navratilova, and Mauresmo, and others, have had to fight these battles, and have eventually emerged victorious, together with the help of allies (some of whom themselves needed to be educated).

Which brings me to my almost prosaic conclusion: no gay or bisexual male player has come out in the open era because none have chosen to take on that fight. For whatever reason, as individuals – not just tennis players, but humans – each man has decided that taking on that battle, with at least some attendant personal cost, is not in their own interest. That is an understandable conclusion for an individual to arrive at, separately.

Even so, as each year brings more players onto the tour, it brings us closer to the point where a player (or multiple players) will look at those same factors, and reach the opposite view. Surely we cannot be too many years away from a male tennis player casually talking about his boyfriend in a post-match interview, releasing a statement that he and his husband have had a child together, or even going to the Wimbledon Winners’ Ball together (which would be a pretty awesome way to come out, come to think of it).

Casey Dellacqua. Where is out male equivalent? Source: Sydney Morning Herald

Casey Dellacqua. Where is our male equivalent? Source: Sydney Morning Herald

For this tennis-mad LGBTI activist, I hope that day is not too far away. Not just because it would add to the already long list of same-sex attracted tennis players to look up to but, if Australian singles players continue to under-perform at home as they have done in the recent past, having an openly gay or bisexual male player might give me someone to barrack for in the second week of the 2015 Australian Open.

 

UPDATE 18 January 2016:

With this year’s Australian Open starting today, I thought I would take a look back on this post, to see what has changed during the past two years. The answer is: lots, and not very much at the same time.

Australian tennis has rediscovered what it is like to have players reach the Australian Open quarter-finals, with Nick Kyrgios achieving the feat last year, and he and Bernard Tomic possibilities to do so again this year and into the future.

Amelie Mauresmo continues to break down barriers, this time as coach, since June 2014, of men’s world number 2 Andy Murray.

The ‘ageing’ trend amongst the male tour might finally be on the cusp of slowing down, and eventually reversing. While the upper echelon remains, for now at least, older than any generation in memory (the only player under the age of 28 inside the current top ten is Kei Nishikori, and even he is 26), there is a large group of new young players who appear of the cusp of breaking through.

The previously mentioned Kyrgios (ranked 30) and Kokkinakis (ranked 86) have youthful company inside the top 100 with Borna Coric, Hyeon Chung and Alexander Zverev (currently ranked 40, 51 and 83 respectively), and look likely to be joined by Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Elias Ymer and Quentin Halys, too. There is also an ominous wave of emerging young American players, led by Taylor Fritz, and including Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Stefan Kozlov and Reilly Opelka.

While I wrote in the original post that older players might stand more chance of coming out on their own terms, it is also possible that this new generation of players will shake things up in more ways than just their on-court play.

The past few years have also seen an acceleration of the welcome trend for currently-active male professional athletes to come out as either gay or bisexual. Most prominently Michael Sam came out as gay just two weeks after my original post, with Jason Collins also becoming the first openly gay man to play in the NBA that same month (having come out publicly the previous year). They have been joined by male athletes across a wide range of sports, including New Zealand Olympic rower Robbie Manson and US Winter Olympic freestyle skier silver medallist Gus Kenworthy, among others.

Of course, one thing that hasn’t changed is that there remains no out gay or bisexual male tennis players. That is a fact that still astounds me. I had thought, when writing the original post, that it was only a matter of months, or potentially just a year or two, before a player would finally break down that particular closet door.

Perhaps the culture of the men’s tennis tour is more homophobic than it appears from the outside. Perhaps there are other factors that have not been identified or considered. We probably won’t know for sure until a male player does finally come out (and even then only if they choose to discuss such things). In the meantime, the wait for an openly gay or bisexual male tennis player continues.

 

*It is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily awful, achievement that someone who has won 24 Grand Slam singles titles could, through years of expressing hateful and discriminatory comments, be better known as a bigot than a former champion.